In July of this year, Kazunori Tago, one of the world’s finest Japanese temple and shrine builders, returned to Birmingham to celebrate a structure he had designed and handcrafted a quarter of a century ago. The Japanese Tea House at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens symbolizes the idea of bringing cultures together, and it was instrumental in forging a friendship between the cities of Birmingham, Alabama, and Maebashi, Japan. Today, the tea house continues to live up to this mission, serving as a platform for the two communities to elevate their relationship to Sister City status.
In 1993, Tago-san and his team of two plasterers, two roofers, two carpenters and a student prepared and assembled the structure in Maebashi before carefully disassembling, packing, and shipping it to Birmingham, where the artisan crew painstakingly reassembled it at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
The unassuming tea house, one of only 12 similar tea houses in the United States, ages gracefully behind an alarmed bamboo gate in the Gardens’ 7 ½-acre Japanese Garden. At 25 years old, the weathered Tea House “is just beginning to reach its prime,” says Bob Wendorf, a retired psychologist who has spent decades volunteering with the upkeep of the Japanese Garden and currently serves as the long-standing president of the Japanese Garden Society. He credits contractor Douglas Moore with brokering the deal in 1992 that ultimately brought the tea house to The Garden. Since Moore’s passing in 2009, Wendorf has become the local authority on the structure. And now, he says, “I’m responsible for this thing.”
“These people do not mess around,” Wendorf says, carefully removing the shutters on the tea house for closer inspection of the architecture. Tago-san designed the modest house and the adjacent machiai, or waiting hut, in the 16th century Sukiya style with delicate proportions, ample use of natural materials, and a general lack of ostentation, Wendorf explains.
The supporting structure is made of hand-planed, unfinished wood. The exposed columns are Japanese cedar, or sugi, with decorative pieces of sugi and sakura (cherry). The smooth-barked beam in the ceiling near the entrance is constructed from a Japanese variety of magnolia. The shoji screens and windows are made of rice or mulberry paper. The roof is covered with more than 6,000 hand-formed copper shingles, and the roofline is capped with ceramic tiles. The wooden trim pieces and ceiling structures were all shaped, fitted and finished by hand using traditional tools and techniques on exotic, exquisite and often expensive woods, many of which were carefully cultivated to showcase their gnarly, deeply etched and uneven surfaces. As a result, the 150-square-foot tea house, consisting of a tea room and an attached wet kitchen, is extremely delicate.
Tago-san named the tea house Toshin-an, meaning “the house where those gathered can light a wick (of understanding) in each other’s hearts.” It speaks to the essence of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which involves a choreographed ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green powdered tea, called Matcha, along with traditional Japanese foods to balance the bitterness of the tea. The tea ceremony can last up to four hours and is considered a form of meditation focused less on the drinking of the tea than on the aesthetics and the preparation of the tea by the host. The experience is designed to bring people together in peace.
While Tago-san has returned to Birmingham through the years and attended tea ceremonies at the tea house he created for The Garden, his recent visit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the tea house was quite special. He was joined by a congregation of 15 Japanese dignitaries, including Maebashi Mayor Ryu Yamamoto. They joined Birmingham Mayor William Bell and Honorary General Counsel of Japan Mark Jackson to elevate the communities’ longstanding Friendship Agreement to Sister Cities, and together participated in a traditional tea ceremony at the tea house.
“By upgrading our friendship … to a Sister City relationship, I wish our two cities to connect with economic programs and continue to carry on exchange in [the fields of] medical, industry, and education and environmental protection,” Yamamoto said at the ceremony.
The tea house is just one centerpiece of the Japanese Garden that symbolizes Birmingham’s connection with Japan. Another is the barrier-free boardwalk leading to the Bamboo Grove, which was made possible through a donation from Tokyo-based Dai-ichi Holdings Company, owner of Protective Life Corporation. The boardwalk was given in honor of the two companies’ values, culture, and commitment to improving the lives of the people and communities they serve.
“Dai-ichi’s contribution provided resources to expand the Bamboo Grove, but it also created new educational opportunities at the Garden,” says Rich Bielen, Protective’s President and CEO. “It signifies the growth of the international business community and the importance of creating opportunities to learn about and experience cultures through treasures like the Japanese Garden.”